Here’s a short story that some people really need to hear. In the 1920s there was a woman called Nellie Bishop who was distraught after a messy, broken romance. So she went to a notorious suicide spot and jumped off a cliff in an attempt to end her life.
But her life had other plans. Just as she jumped, a freak wave swept in and broke her fall before she was plucked – gratefully – from the ocean by passing fishermen. You see, halfway down in mid-air, Nellie changed her mind. Suddenly, she wanted to live.
Author and journalist, Peter FitzSimons, unearthed Nellie’s story recently and wrote about it, noting that “despite the blackness that propelled her to jump, despite being firmly convinced that there was no way out for her, that life was not worth living, that death was better than life. . . she was totally, comprehensively and stunningly wrong.
For Nellie Bishop really did live happily ever after. She fell in love again with a good man, had eight wonderful children, of whom five joined the police force and one, Bob Bradbury, became NSW’s highest ranking detective. One of her dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren, Bill Bradbury, became a police negotiator and ended up spending a proportion of his professional life successfully talking people out of suicide. He had a story to tell them . . .”
Talking with Pete about Nellie over a cup of tea a few weeks ago, Pete and I agreed there should be a large plaque erected at that cliff top spot which told Nellie’s story so those contemplating suicide could think about her sliding door moment and perhaps consider how their own life might turn out – if they let it.
If you work in the media, you learn early to tread very cautiously around suicide stories. There are strict media guidelines around the way they’re reported and for good reason*. As adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr Gregg explained to me, ‘Suicide contagion’ is a phenomenon first recognised in 1774 after the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which featured a young man who killed himself over unrequited love. A spate of copycat suicides across Europe led to the book being banned in Germany, Italy and Denmark.
The often-repeated phenomenon was also seen in Japan in 1986 with the suicide of the pop star Yukiko Okada. There’s now also the Yukiko syndrome where the more a suicide is reported the greater the likelihood of copycat cases.
That’s why you’ll sometimes read or hear about a death reported in vague terms. Why the method of a suicide is never disclosed. And why there are so many, many suicides you’ll never know about because they’re not reported at all.
The reasons for these media guidelines are sound but overall, is it a good thing, this silence?